Our No. 1 resort, whre 'life boils down to the moment'

Wilbur D. Preston Jr.

September 16, 1991|By Wilbur D. Preston Jr.

CITY ON THE SAND: Ocean City, Maryland, and the People Who Built It. By Mary Corddry. Illustrated by Ellen Corddry. Tidewater Publishers. 200 pages. $19.95.

IF YOU like Ocean City, you will like its story. If you love Ocean City, you will probably love this book. Even if you don't like the present glitz of the "new" Ocean City, you should read it.

Author Mary Corddry was The Sun's Eastern Shore correspondent for 17 years. In this book, which follows her "Museums and Monuments of the Eastern Shore," Corddry renders a fascinating history of the state's premier resort, the city that has entertained hundreds of thousands of Marylanders over the past century -- and appalled quite a few, as well.

Surprisingly, the best part of the book is the history of the city itself, quite apart from "the people who built it." Corddry has researched just about everything that ever happened to the town from its beginnings to its present "full bloom" (the title of the last chapter).

Corddry's reporter's instincts and skill make the history of the town come alive. The story begins in the 1870s, when a Long Island businessman, Stephen Taber, acquired a large acreage on the northern part of the desolate Assateague Island for almost nothing from the state of Maryland. Since there were no automobiles, the eastward extension of the railroad to Berlin and subsequently to Ocean City was needed for the resort to flourish. Farsighted Eastern Shore and Baltimore people made a deal with Taber to acquire 50 acres in 1875 and built the Atlantic Hotel. When the railroad was actually extended to Ocean City, the resort was off and running.

The two great punctuation points in the history of the city are the storm of 1933, which created the inlet that changed Ocean City forever, and the storm of 1962 that devastated so much of the beach-front property. (Another event that changed Ocean City and, indeed, the whole Eastern Shore was the opening of the Bay Bridge in 1952.) Before the inlet was created by the '33 storm, Ocean City had five or six commercial fishing companies that operated on the beach and fished in a way unheard of today. It was called "pot netting." The description of this operation and the other business ventures and misadventures over the years should be known to the boardwalk strollers of today.

The book takes us through the changes following the '33 storm up to World War II. The formalities at the hotels, afternoon tea, dressing for dinner, leisurely evening walks with ladies in beautiful gowns and gentlemen in their finest -- all are described here.

Following World War II the character of Ocean City, like the rest of the world, changed, and Corddry captures the change vividly. The great booms and busts of the '70s and '80s and the men and women involved in the investments that extended the city northward to the Delaware border are described in some detail. But Corddry does a better job of describing the events of history than of profiling the people who made it.

In reading "City on the Sand," you get the impression that virtually all of the people who played roles in the town's development were honest, God-fearing, loyal to family and hard-working. None of them seemed to have had a fault. In short, the city itself seems to have a more believable and understandable character than "the people who built it."

Corddry also describes Ocean City's flora and fauna, at least what is left of them. She appreciates all of them and paints them in living color. Readers will agree with the public relations man who was hired by the hotel owners during one of the recessions of the '70s. He reminded clients that things surely would get better because there is "only one beach." And now there is one book about the beach.

Corddry's own words say much about the "City on the Sand" -- the book and the city:

"It is impossible to explain dispassionately, objectively, with the view of an outsider. That is because whether one is on the beach with a family and a picnic basket or at a party on the 20th floor of a condominium looking out over the lighted city at night, one gets caught up in the place.

"Life boils down to the moment, to the tiny space you have blocked out for yourself on the beach, to the particular character of the particular situation in which you are a momentary part."

Wilbur D. Preston Jr. is a Baltimore lawyer who has a home north of Ocean City on the Delaware beach.

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